Wabash Blogs Immersion 2008: Israel -

March 10, 2008

Israel Immersion Trip: Reflection

Spencer Elliott '10 - I can’t endure the open ocean for an extended period of time. I’m often overwhelmed by a sense of an incomprehensible depth that threatens to envelop me. I somehow sense that underneath the relatively humble vessel there is an unimaginably large and alien world, and that a simple turn of fate could plunge me into its foreign depths. The situation is out of my control.  It’s the flash of an objective mindset where I perceive my existence as a subject in an unimaginably expansive universe. These thoughts run contrary to my basic human instincts because individuals don’t regularly acknowledge that they are part of, and governed by, a much larger natural system. It can be a somewhat tormenting realization. I found that Israel awakened these odd feelings not unlike the ocean has in the past.

I grew up in Indiana and, until last week, I hadn’t left the country. To put it simply, Israel was a trial by fire of sorts. I often felt out of place, plagued by a certain disconnect I had never experienced with my culture at home; I was struggling with my naiveté. I wasn’t Jewish or Arab and, honestly, I didn’t sympathize with the endless droves of religious pilgrims (I am a Christian who despises commercialized religion).  Some Americans are privileged with a comfortable lifestyle that affords the opportunity to think purely as individuals- to not have to take radical stances or form radical groups for the sake of self-preservation. I am one of them. I thought that Israel, on the other hand, was a diverse state where many choose to strictly associate with a group that avoids interaction with other segments of the population. So I found myself wandering the streets of Jerusalem in a state of bewilderment. Overwhelmed by an unseen burden, I felt as if I was alone and afloat in a sea composed of the depths of human history. Time in Israel is measured in millennia, the legacy of only a few individuals survives the test of time; a small nudge (walking in front of a truck, falling off of Mas’ada’s steep cliffs, a suicide bombing, etcetera) could plunge me into the depths of obscurity.


What brought me out of this negative mindset and back down to earth? Bargaining in an Arab market; Gorgeous landscapes; Turkish coffee; Female Israeli soldiers with M-16’s; Falafels; Mud from the Dead Sea. These things provided a temporary fix, but it was spending time with my family that showed me the error of my thought process. My uncle, Michael Elliott, has lived in Israel for 25 years. He met my aunt Maija-lissa (from Finland), got married, and raised five girls(pictured, from right to left- Shlomit, Shiriel, Tikva, Tohar, and Yohanna.) Spending time with real Israelis with whom I had a strong familial bond made me finally comprehend that life goes on in Israel much as it does in Indiana. People get up, go to work and come home to their families. Most importantly, most also desire to peacefully co-exist with their neighbors. We will all die and plunge into the afterlife. What counts is how we spend our short time on this earth.

One of the first things that struck me as I returned home was the blandness of Indiana’s landscape compared to Israel’s, but I looked upwards and realized that our sunset was equally gorgeous. You don't know how much you appreciate home until you've been somewhere else for a while. 

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March 07, 2008

Israel Immersion Trip: Journal 2

Note: this entry was to be made on March 4th, however, due to human error, it was not properly posted at this time.

Jacob Surface ’10 – I ran around the Kibbutz this morning. Alex Avtgis joined me for the first mile. Afterwards, I headed out on the paved roads among the orange groves and wheat fields. It was very beautiful despite the cool rain. The rain almost made it more enjoyable and it was cool to see the clouds roll against the mountains not far away. As the sun rose and burnt away the rain clouds, there was a beautiful view of the mountains which shield the fertile farm valley.

We toured the Lebanese border with colonel Kobi today. His views are very interesting. He believes that the Israeli policy of avoiding escalation by not responding to attacks allowed the Hezbollah forces to gain more strength. He believes that Israel could crush their enemies by launching full scale ground operations, but Israeli society will not afford the cost of young lives and economic costs from the mobilization of reserve units. Kobi said that the people want Israel to be Switzerland. In such a small country, one life or one factory being closed down during war is a much larger concern than in the vast U.S. He was certainly more of a hawkish type, in light of a helicopter accident that killed about 70 Israeli soldiers in 1997; Kobi was troubled by four mothers that encouraged Israeli society to withdraw from Lebanon because they infuriated his efforts as a commanding officer. However, now he recognizes the value of their protest and understands the importance of societies involvement in the governmental decision making process.

            We also visited the Tel Dan nature reserve, the source of the Jordan River and the site of the biblical history of the tribe of Dan. We also saw excavations that revealed a gate which Abraham may have used before heading over the mountains to Damascus. This land is so rich in history that anywhere could be a future archeological excavation. 

            After grabbing a falafel and coke at a run down open mall, we headed to some old Syrian bunkers that Israel overtook in 1967. From the mount in the Golan we could see the UN outpost which is present to run patrols and ensure that Syria and Israel respect the international border. Syria and Israel have only signed a disengagement pact, never a treaty of any kind. Colonel Kobi mentioned that some Israeli’s would be willing to give up some or all of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace and normalcy with Syria.

            At Capernaum, on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, we visited a possible house of the disciple Peter, the rock of the Christian Church. It was interesting to yet again see the old under the new. One is able to see layer upon layer as societies overtake each other and build upon the old. I am constantly struck by the spectrum of peoples, history, and resident interests that constantly seem to be in some form of competition for recognition. Obviously, Jerusalem will be the biggest hot-spot for this. Tonight we stay at the Kibbutz again and tomorrow head down the Jordan Valley.

Photos: Top- Colonel Kobi, Middle- Tel-Dan Nature Reserve, Bottom- Capernaum

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March 06, 2008

Israel Immersion Trip: Journal 5

Collin Rudnik '10 - Some of my fellow students composed blogs concerning the awe-inspiring qualities of the Holy Land.  Yet try as I might, I could not tap into those same feelings.  Part of it might be the information overload of trying to soak up all the chief features of monotheism’s overall holiest city—the other part might be the embellishment of facts with convenient (or strangely inconvenient) locations for holy sites, merchandising, and the seemingly endless fighting between not just different religions but different sects of the same religion.

My own cynicism has important parallels to societal tensions within Israel today.  The state was founded by Jews who were predominantly secular and often socialist.  The ultra-orthodox sects within Judaism actually believe the creation of Israel to be outside of God’s plan.  And even if they slander Israel, they are not above receiving exemptions from conscription and stipends to continue studying at Yeshiva; nor do they refrain from creating political parties to voice their interests.  Reminiscent of the mythical system of estates in Medieval Europe, the ultra-orthodox do the praying while the more moderate or secular Jews do the fighting (along with the Druze) and working (along with Israeli Arabs).

Sometimes, this tension enters the light.  Yesterday night, at the checkpoint between the Arab and Jewish districts of the Old City, an ultra-orthodox tried to brush through one of the checkpoints.  The Uzi-toting IDF soldier stationed there was simply not amused, and sent the fellow through the metal detector like everyone else.  Not everyone is keen on their holier-than-though disposition.

And yet Israel grants them significant powers through religious courts, which we discovered today on a tour of the Israeli Supreme Court.  Marriages between Jews and non-Jews must be held on Cyprus because the courts won’t approve of them here.  Separation must follow the Old Testament requirement of a thrice-stated divorce by the husband.  And unless the religious court oversteps its jurisdiction, these rulings cannot be appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court.

But I suppose that is the least of the problems here.  During my writing of this (about 9 PM March 6th, local time), a Yeshiva was attacked by three gunmen, one of which is still on the loose.  Some eight people are dead, and another thirty-five are wounded.  The sirens from the ambulances and the whir of helicopter blades pierce the silence, and then fade away once more.

Israel is a beautiful, green, modern, quiet place.  This has been my overall impression.  Things seemed so peaceful in the north when we were all staying at the Kibbutz.  And for those not near Gaza or Jerusalem, they probably are still peaceful—for now.  The greatest contradiction, the greatest tension, once more enters the spotlight: that in the Holy Land, perhaps more than most anywhere else, the least holy acts are perpetrated.

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Israel Immersion Trip: Journal 4

Aaron Bonar ‘10 - After our usual group breakfast, we traveled to the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem. We quickly learned that the “old city” isn’t really the old city at all; the original City of David is on a lower hill to the south of the current Old City. The outer walls we see today were actually built 450 years ago by the Turks, and they don’t encompass the original City of David or Mount Zion (the builders lost their lives for this error). We walked through the Jaffa Gate, where we were able to see a major church built by the Germans. We also saw the Tower of David but learned, as with many sites in the Old City, that the tower has nothing to do with David; it’s actually a minaret built by the Turks with no relationship to the line of David. It was later named in his honor.

    We saw the Dome of the Rock, a holy site for Muslims and Jews alike (Mohammed ascended here, and Abraham bound Isaac in the same spot), but non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. From atop a fortress built by King Herod, one could also see a Russian Orthodox church built upon the spot where Jesus ascended into Heaven. As I looked at all of these sites from the tower, I felt chills up and down my spine. After reading the Bible and hearing about all of these miraculous events, I was finally seeing them myself (or, at the very least, seeing where they might have taken place). The thought of viewing the same land that early Christians, Jews, and Muslims viewed was and still is awe inspiring.            After spending some time at a museum that detailed the different ancient periods of Jerusalem, the group moved on to Mount Zion. Mount Zion is the (assumed) home of the Tomb of King David and of the room of the Last Supper, two extremely holy sites. Even though the tomb may not really contain David’s remains, our guide Mike explained that the site is revered because, if nothing else, it gives Jews and Christians alike a place to pay their respects to the warrior king. The room of the Last Supper is also questionable; it was actually built by the Crusaders on top of what was assumed to be the original room. Regardless, the sites themselves were still incredible.

After walking down a partially reconstructed Byzantine era street, the group stopped for a quick lunch. We proceeded to the remains of the Temple of Jerusalem and, of course, to the Western (or Wailing) Wall. Even at this incredibly holy site, the story is still incorrect; the wall itself is not the western wall of the temple, but rather the western portion of a wall that surrounded it and also a part of the artificial mountain built to support the temple. Still, the wall itself had a mystical feel; just standing in front of it humbled me. For the believers, one could not help but feel a little of the power of the Almighty. It may sound cheesy, but I swear that it is true. After standing for a few moments in silent respect, I tore out a piece of paper from my journal, wrote a small prayer, and stuck it into the wall as many people do. It was an experience to say the least.

The group continued into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site (for most non-Protestant Christian groups) where Jesus was crucified and buried. We learned that six prominent Christian sects (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Egyptian Orthodox) continue to fight over the land on which the church rests. The large Greek chapel there is built on the site where St. Helena supposedly found the True Cross, and it was one of the most beautiful old chapels I have ever seen.

The group continued on to the last tour of our day: the tour through the Western Wall Tunnel. As we toured the original ground level of the city (as with most old cities, buildings were built on top of other buildings as time progressed), we got a real sense of how high the original walls around the temple were. We also understood the scale of the process; most of the stones in the wall weighs thousands of pounds and are about 45 feet long. Getting them up the mountain to build the wall had to be an impressive feat. We also learned that, although all four walls are still standing, the western wall is the most important because it is the closest wall to the Holiest of Holies, the back part of the temple that contained the holiest relics of the Jewish faith. This fact creates a strong emotional connection for the Jewish people; they cannot touch the actual remains of the temple, but they can pray at the closest wall. After the tour concluded, we were escorted through the Arab Quarter and, after an unintentional detour that gave us a wonderful night time view of Jerusalem, returned to the hotel for dinner.


After spending an entire day in a holy place, one cannot help but sit and reflect upon the experience. I still cannot believe that I walked in the same places that Abraham and Jesus walked (maybe not the exact places due to centuries of construction, but close enough); it boggles my mind. The millennia that the city has lived through and all of the hardships it has faced are hard to comprehend by themselves, and the soul quivers when one thinks about all of the holy events that happened here. It has been quite a journey.


I’d like to close with a comment from Mike, our guide, about Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a “Five to One” city:

5 – 5,000 years of history

4 – Four quarters of the Old City (Christian, Jewish, Armenian, and Muslim)

3 – Three major religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)

2 – Two national entities (Jewish and Palestinian)

1 – One city under one monotheistic God

Photos: Top- Walking the streets of Jerusalem, Bottom- Overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem on top of King David's tower  


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March 05, 2008

Israel Immersion Trip: Journal 3


Alex Avtgis 11' - Waking, I rose sweaty, suffering from an interesting recollection of my dream(s). Two days after having first stepped and grounded my legs onto the Holy Land, my nights were consumed already by the contested battle; back and forth between the Hebrew Zionist-call and the Arab-Palestinian “Right of Return” did my mind swirl. All night this debate fired, preying openly on my mind. I woke to the phone alarm, with immediate thoughts of danger; perhaps another salvo of raging missiles and useless fighting had struck again, (phantoms of my imagination) and, that again I was left stranded and victim to the attrition.  

To you, this might not be real; however, to every innocent citizen plagued by the eternal clash of ideologies, this thought looms omnipotent. Although most of the current generation denies it, purposely dodging or contesting the situation in conversation, Palestine still hasn’t experienced a rest in the last sixty years. Still a reliable and steady resolution remains lost, lacking.

But enough of that—for us American foreigners shooting mere snapshots of the land and soaking in the deepness of the soil and the fresh of the air, life was great.


After eating a hearty and ethnic breakfast, including eggs roasted in olive oil and roasted tomatoes, fresh salmon, and Turkish goat’s cheese, or feta, we embarked. The drive was ahead, and our journey was destined to be good: today Wabash would end the day in the Holiest of Holies, entering the city gates of the Israeli capital, Jerusalem.

In between though, multiple things would ensue, some not to our control.


After having driven the now-familiar coast of the Sea of Galilee, we stopped at the foot of the Jordan River. There we learned that we were (possibly) at the spot where Jesus would have conducted the majority of his baptisms, and would have a chance to be baptized in the same Jordan. Given the opportunity however, my P.B. (Pledge-Brother) Luke Bielawski arose as the champion of the group, and clearly the only one brave enough to encounter the icy cold waters. Adorning only a white robe, he entered a corral style nook of the river and submerged himself head to foot with the holy waters.


At this point, I will diverge a bit from my PB. As I watched his submersion, I looked around and noticed how truly diverse the tourist population was. At my left were three German elderly women, fourteen middle-aged Chinese men and women, all in addition to the visiting busses of Nigerians. In this instant, I took a breath. This spot, one which meant truckloads to my pledge brother, must have meaning beyond imagination: people from opposite corners of the world experienced this right alongside him, sharing a similar understanding despite their apparent language barrier.


Back to the bus. Traveling further south, we stopped later for a water break of particular peculiarity. Up until this point, we had remained only in the North, revealing to us a SURPRISINGLY lush cornucopia of brush and crops. However, in a matter of two hours, the Israel which we had finally grown to comprehend decided to throw us a curve ball. The camels finally came, and the sand, and the heat, and the dreaded desert. Our stop was in the middle of a brazen, helter-skelter heat of a wilderness, only comforted by the occasional palm tree and prickly and dried brush.


Back to the bus. By this time, my fellow journeymen understood that although travel by bus is a highly efficient and necessary means to experience the country, it consumes much energy and time. (I’m not contradicting the well known and stated fact that Israel as a whole is small, but merely voicing some petty criticism).

As we left the bus for a third time, we were granted with a pleasant surprise: Masada awaited us. For those of you unfamiliar to Jewish written history concerning the Herodian period, then too bad. Not really – Masada was an early second century Jewish fortress standing solitary on a Palestinian Plateau. Shortly after, however, the Romans took the fort, besieging it.


(IN INTEREST OF THE READER):  We then drove the whole length of the Dead Sea, and then entertained a much needed mud bath. See the pictures if you have any questions. Actually, don’t ask any.


And then, we entered Jerusalem. Beauty. Stunning. Serenity. Mosques, Christian Churches, and the Old City Walls. The calling of the prayer, and the Jewish Haredi (Modern Ultra-Orthodox).



Eretz Israel. How I love thee.   

Photos: Top- Luke Bielawski '11 dips himself in the Jordan River, Middle- Craig Cochran '10 admires the view from atop Mas'ada, Bottom- the group gets covered in mud from the Dead Sea 

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March 02, 2008

Israel Immersion Trip: Journal 1

Jarryd Morton '10 - The Middle Eastern politics class met in front of Sparks Center on March 29 to embark on a much anticipated journey to Israel. (click here to see photos from our first day - Israel Photo Album #1) From start to finish we ended up in Tel Aviv twenty-one hours later.  The time difference between Eastern Standard Time and Israeli time is seven hours. The first night we met our tour guide Mike, who is an immigrate to Israel originally born in Canada. He and his wife, originally from New York, made an aliyah to Israel in 1998. Aliyah in Israel is a term commonly used to describe the waves of Jewish immigration back to the homeland. After getting on our bus we became accustom to the spice of Israel in a quick visit to old Jaffa. Tel Aviv, our first night’s stay, is probably the most modern city in Israel, characteristically similar to Europe. At night we went to out as a group to explore the city, however we found most places closed due to religious “Blue Laws.” Blue Laws are instituted by the Israeli government, restricting the opening of business on the Jewish Sabbath, or Saturday. Nevertheless, a Jewish owner may keep his business open for a minimal fine. On the other hand, non-Jewish Arabs continue to keep their businesses open without fear of a fine.

After a night in Tel Aviv we all met for breakfast in the morning and started out for our first complete day in the country. From Tel Aviv, we traveled first to the city of Caesarea. Like Tel Aviv, Caesarea is a port city located on the Mediterranean. The city port contains large historical significance — it was occupied by four different groups dating back to the early Roman Empire. The biblical King Herod was the first to occupy the port under a strict Roman rule. While there, he built the city, creating the greatest port in the Mediterranean. After dying, his sons let the city fall to the Byzantines. From the Byzantines came the Christian Crusaders and finally the Arab Muslims. After visiting the small city of Caesarea, presently about six-thousand in population, we traveled up the coast line to Haifa, where one can see the strongest German influence in all of Israel. Here we made a stop to examine the Bahá’í religion. The Bahá’í have a particular stronghold in the city of Haifa where its influence can be recognized distinctly by the looming structure of the Báb, a shrine in the heart of the city, complete with eighteen leveled monumental gardens, nine above and nine below of which expanded the entire length of city’s mountain side. After driving through the “German town,” we headed over to the Sea of Galilee where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, which is known as Mount Beatitudes.

photo: Jacob Surface '10 at the Shrine of the Báb

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February 26, 2008

Mikesell Leading Group to Study Israel

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is one of the most contentious and longest tenured conflicts in the entire world. The convoluted division of two groups (Israelis and Palestinians) claiming one land is only exacerbated by the multiplicity of divisions within each of these groups.

That is what Wabash men are to explore over Spring Break. 

Political Science Professor Phil Mikesell ’63 and Economics Professor Frank Howland are leading a dozen Wabash men from Dr. Mikesell’s Politics of the Middle East course to Israel for the week of Spring Break. The Wallys will post pictures and commentary on this blog about what they will see, hear and experience.

 Their trip begins with a seven hour flight to Madrid from Chicago and another four hour flight to Tel Aviv from Madrid. Once in Israel, they will travel to and along the Lebanese border as a tour given by an Israeli Army colonel, down the Jordan River and up into Jerusalem. While in the Old City, they will see the Knesset, Hebrew University and a cadre of other historic and religiously significant sites.

 This is no site seeing tour – this is an essential portion of their coursework. Each Wally was required to read three books on the history and political science behind the Israeli state, the conflict between Israel and Palestine and a history of Jerusalem. Their entire coursework was focused on learning enough on the trip so that everything they saw and did could inform this knowledge they had already garnered. Dr. Mikesell also left plenty of time in the itinerary for students to check out the city of Jerusalem’s cafes and interact with everyday Israeli’s.

Student Participants: Aaron Abell, Alex Avtgis, Luke Bielwaski, Aaron Bonar, Craig Cochran, Spencer Elliott, Tyler Gibson, Stefan Ludlow, Jarryd Morton, Jacob Surface, Anthony Tellez.

Elliott will be coordinating student writing about their daily experiences in the Middle East and posting to this blog.

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